Jan/Feb 2003 Miscellaneous

Cultivating Science: More Than Cause, Effect

by Rajgopal Nidamboor

If the great change of position in our minds—from the medieval to the modern—was engineered by the progress of science, despite the opposition from religion, or devout orthodoxy, the success of science in explaining and predicting the natural world has now come to stay, be it East or West. A case in point: if Descartes, to cull a classical example, thought he'd found a rational basis for science based on his arguments for his own existence and the existence of God, Newton's advances in physics founded on his empirical and inductive methods were hugely influential to Enlightenment philosophers.

What's more, Kant, another great mind, thought that Newton's laws could be shown to be true by reason. Which explains why he maintained a dualistic view of the universe a la the Indian philosopher, Madhvacárya, in an earlier epoch: human beings live in a world of rationality, autonomy and morality, whilst the material universe which they observe could be explained in terms of both cause and effect.

That's not all. Another great thinker Comte took the idea up front, in his own way. He argued that human thought developed through a number of stages: mythical and religious, metaphysical, and its final positive stage, characterized by the systematic collection of observed facts. He also thought that these "Positivist" methods should explicitly be turned to the study of society. With his "discovery" of sociology, Comte averred that our knowledge of human beings could be explained using similar methods to those of the natural sciences.

Wait a moment. In the last century, Karl Popper, a genius like no other, became a furious critic of the inductive methods used by science. All inductive evidence, he observed, was limited. We do not observe the universe at all times, and in all places. We are, he said, not justified, therefore, in making a general rule from this observation of particulars. Popper was also critical of the immature, empiricist view that we objectively observe the world. He proposed a "substitute": a scientific method based on falsification.

At the same time, another great scholar Thomas Kuhn was critical of the unsophisticated portrait that philosophers had highlighted of science. Kuhn looked at the history of science and argued that science does not simply progress by stages based upon neutral observations. Scientists, he contended, have a world view, or "paradigm." He also maintained that the archetype of Newton's mechanical universe is very different to the model of Einstein's relativistic universe. Each example is an interpretation of the world, rather than an objective elucidation.

Kuhn also thought that the history of science was characterized, and accentuated, by revolutions in scientific outlook. Scientists, he noted, accept the dominant view until glitches are thrown up. They then begin to question the basis of the standard itself, following which new theories emerge to challenge the dominant theory, and eventually one of these new theories becomes accepted as the new pattern. This, in more ways than one, was akin to what Paul Feyerabend thought—that the superiority of the modern scientific method should not be implied. He argued for a revolutionary advance to knowledge based on the idea that we cannot envisage what shape future knowledge will take. His bottom line: we should also not shut in ourselves to one collective method of gaining comprehension.

It goes without saying that Einstein's theory of relativity deposed the Newtonian model that had been dominant since Enlightenment. This change of guard made philosophers cognizant that the essentials of a scientific understanding were not a stationary, rigid set of natural laws; rather, these models were human interpretations of phenomena, dependant on the community in which they become known as much as the nature of reality per se. Hence, the analysis: scientific explanation can no longer be looked upon as objective and dispassionate. At the borders of science new models are constantly emerging to test current conventions. Inference: they will only expand. For the better or "verse"—whichever way you look at it.

Which also explains why it is never too late to cultivate what Jawaharlal Nehru epitomized as the scientific temper in us all. It may not be easy, yes, but it is an achievable prospect. A possibility construct, too. However, to make a complex thought simple, let us cull a few gems from noted evolutionist Richard Dawkins. The marvels of science, according to Dawkins, are not just convictions; they stream, he reflects, richly in our psyche. Additionally, the tenets of scientific thought, Dawkins contends, are no less than an aesthetic experience. It is something like what competes with the mathematics of music or literature. Dawkins, therefore, does not think of science as mundane, dry, terse, and abstract, without a sense of beauty and/or inspiration running through it. His wider aim is focused to a refined doctrine: the creation of a work, or decorative body of knowledge, or what all of us, quite simply, call as science.

It's also one great reason why Dawkins takes on science's critics head-on. In so doing, he invents a theme for cultivated science, a furious analysis of dim-witted junk. Not that Dawkins succeeds in his every exposition. All the same, he delivers a notation, an earnest attempt that integrates science as fine art. In other words, the beauty of truth—and the truth of beauty—of science: an understanding, or even a broad appreciation.

In his thoughtful book, Unweaving The Rainbow, for example, which derives its name from John Keats' famous wail on Newton's anatomization of the rainbow into light of different wavelengths, Dawkins responds to Keatsian gloom with an enchanting annotation of Newtonian optics. For one simple reason: Newton's elegant prism experiments, in their colorful reality, were duly set to take one into his/her seventh heaven of existence, with chiselled perfection and design. When light is divided into a rainbow of colours by one prism, it is reversed into white light when refracted by a second. At the same time, one part of the spectrum preserves its colour when passed through a second prism. Such analyses persuaded Newton that prisms don't colour light; instead, they disengaged light into fundamental sections or wavelengths.

Dawkins uses more than a brace of such timeless concepts to delve into deeper insights, such as how circular raindrops rupture and bend light so as to allow us to witness a rainbow union. There ends the comparison, because we do not still know why a rainbow is stable even when it rains, or why we can never reach a rainbow's end. Yet, the fact remains that we now delight in these mysteries—more so, because they are brightened by a comprehension of the basic potentials at work.

Dawkins' refined constructs actually knock the daylights out of a host of aberrations of what is called pseudoscience, too. The likes of what makes the Uri Gellers and others celebrities—the so-called spoon-benders, soothsayers, or "astrologers," including the populist The X-Files. Maybe they are all lightweight marks. They cannot really defend themselves with pure scientific validation, a verification of perception and/or response. But that does not amuse Dawkins. Nor, most of us. His intention, therefore, is replete with a solemn purpose, not sermon. His is also mission, which all of us could pursue: to replenish science with amazement. Nevertheless, he's totally, like most of us, in favour of a balanced methodology—the cultivation of healthy scepticism, something that should begin in one's childhood.

The science of anything that is mumbo-jumbo, however, has no place in Dawkins' world. Nor, in our world either. He is of the opinion that it is a made-to-order medley: one that steals our recognition of astonishment into the irrational and bafflement, leaving us exposed to "unhealthy and reprehensible gullibility." Which, in more ways than one, explains the need for a more complete, or upright, aesthetic science. Which also explains why the likes of Dawkins have sculpted great chapters on the evolution and the biological cycles, including the "backpack" augmentation of the human brain—a world where science is mirrored as loveliness and comeliness as science—something that Roger Penrose espoused with marvellous insight.

Don't you agree with it all, for science's sake? Maybe, you sure do, and prefer to cultivate science in your very own way, in the best manner possible. That is, without jargon, or what others tell you to believe one way or the other. So, there we are! We need to give science a good thought, if you haven't done it already, and let the roses blossom in your mind's garden. A garden or an enchanting boulevard that is related to all the marvels that makes science a wonderful, amazing, meaningful, and sometimes incredible, learning experience. In other words, a great vocation for [y]our, and the world's, good.


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